Genesis 22: 22-31
The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Peniel, limping because of his hip.
As people of faith, we turn to the Bible for answers to our questions about God, and about the meaning of life. In doing so we find that the Bible provides answers but may also lead to other questions. Most significantly, we occasionally have questions for which there are no simple and readily apparent answers.
Among them is THE question. The big question – the “why” question. It’s an age old question, and we hear it once again in reference to the current pandemic and its impact on our world.
The question goes like this: “If God is all powerful and all loving then why is this happening?” Indeed, if God is in charge, then why is the world suffering like this?
The philosopher would say that either God causes suffering or God allows suffering. If God is in charge then either God is passively allowing suffering or actively causing it to occur. To the philosopher, one approach seems bad and the other worse.
Our response might go something like this: True, we don’t have a neatly packaged answer to the “why” question. But our faith makes it possible for us to live without the complete ‘answer.’
For us, God is not the source of easy answers. For us, there is an element of mystery to God, and there are things that we cannot know. We believe that part of the faith life is to embrace the mystery. For us, we believe that our faith will be tested, but it is not God who tests us. For us, hard questions demand more than simple answers, and our faith compels us to go deeper.
The passage from Genesis that we have for today tells the story of Jacob wrestling with someone. It identifies this someone as a man, but the passage suggests that it is more than that. The person is usually referred to as an angel, and towards the end of the story Jacob says that he has seen the face of God.
The story tells us that when day breaks and the angel wants to leave, Jacob won’t let go. Jacob will not let go until he receives a blessing. He receives the blessing but also an injury to his hip, and from then on he will walk with a limp.
This story suggests that there are different ways that we can approach God, and among them “wrestling” is acceptable. For us, wrestling with God might take the form of giving voice to our questions. Because we believe that God can handle the hard questions, can handle our doubt, our fear, and even our anger and pain.
As humans we know what it is to be wounded by life. We know that if we live long enough we will suffer loss, will suffer pain. We will be wounded.
But we also believe that God will not let go or give up on us. And when we are wounded, we believe that it is not God who has caused it. God has not abandoned us, is not absent, or far away. In fact, it is when we are wounded that God is the closest to us.
Most of all, there is this: We believe in an all-powerful, all loving God, but we also believe in a suffering God. God suffers with us. Although we do not choose suffering, suffering is redemptive. Through it we can often find a way to become more loving, more generous, and more alive. We can become nearer to the heart of God and in the process become even more like God.
Charles Wesley wrote a hymn called “Come, O Thou Traveler Unknown” based on the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel. He writes the hymn in first person, as if Jacob were speaking to us. It includes these verses:
I need not tell Thee who I am, My sin and misery declare; Thyself hast called me by my name, Look on Thy hands, and read it there; But who, I ask Thee, who art Thou? Tell me Thy name, and tell me now. 'Tis Love! 'tis Love! Thou diedst for me, I hear Thy whisper in my heart; The morning breaks, the shadows flee: Pure, universal Love Thou art; To me, to all Thy mercies move; Thy nature and Thy name is Love
May grace and peace be multiplied among us, and may we grow in faith, through belief in the mysteries of God, the God who is all good all the time. Amen.